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Friday, June 24, 2005

Book Reviews

Blowing in the Wind

Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale, and How a Nineteenth-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry by Scott Huler. Crown Publishers Group, New York, 2004, 304 pages, $23.

Courtesy of Crown Publishers Group
Those of us who live with the constant possibility of high winds have a tendency, not unlike people who live with a scarcity of water, to fixate on our predicament. And we like to think it’s even worse than not having enough water, for water shortages can in some ways be countered by restricting usage: not hosing down balconies, terraces, or outside stairs and streets; not washing cars; letting lawns yellow. But wind, we tell ourselves, is another matter: there’s no mitigating it, although we in Myloi, on southern Evia (whose windfarms are second in all of Greece only to those on the Lasithi plain in Crete), weigh down young zucchinis with stones at this time of year, and truss the tomato plants to anything that comes to hand, and, as at any time of the year, close and shutter windows, push rags under doorsills—the landlubber’s simulation of battening down the hatches—and give thanks that our houses are banked deep into the earth to the north, from where the most ferocious winds come.

I had no experience of wind until living in Myloi, for I grew up in New Hampshire and lived much of my adult life in New York City, mostly breezy places except for the occasional hurricane that managed to wend its way far up the Atlantic coast or a wintry northeaster. Indeed, what I knew of wind’s terrible power came from movies, from repeated TV viewings during my childhood of Captains Courageous—Spencer Tracy losing his legs as the ship’s main mast downs him—and from seeing (as an adult) Victor Sjostrom’s (aka Seastrom) The Wind, a silent classic in which the wind becomes a central character, which drives Lillian Gish to murder and thereafter, in perfect complicity, covers her victim with drifting sand.

No one in Myloi has ever lost limbs because of the wind, so far as I know (the villagers prudently simply refuse to go anywhere as soon as Force 8 blows), and no one—again, so far as I know—has ever been driven to murder by the wind. But let it roar down over the Ochi mountain range for several days straight, which it often does, and the people of Myloi claim to lose their minds. Mas trelane o anemos—the wind has made us crazy—is what we say to one another by way of greeting. That, and how hard it’s blowing, always according to the Beaufort Scale of zero to twelve.

This scale is the centerpiece of Scott Huler’s Defining the Wind, a curious mélange of biography, about Sir Francis Beaufort (born in Ireland in 1774 and in 1829 made the head of the British admiralty hydrographic office, a position he held until he retired at 81 in 1855), reflection on the nature of travel and exploration before and during Beaufort’s lifetime, history of science (of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries), and personal journal. Beaufort did not write the descriptions accompanying the scale named after him: they were composed by committee. As these descriptions, however, according to Huler, “represent…in thirteen entries comprising 110 total words, the apex of descriptive nonfiction in English”! (p. 9), that means that, for Huler, the Beaufort Scale is a misnomer, which takes him 244 pages to forgive—but forgive Beaufort Huler finally does:

In every way, what I found marvelous about the scale found a mirror in Beaufort, and what I found to admire in Beaufort found expression in the scale that bears his name….

It’s a scale of vivid description that carries the name of a man who was mad for vivid and exact description. It’s a scale based on observation given the name of a man for whom observation was something he could not stop doing, something that he continued doing when all that was left for him to observe was his own declining health. (pp. 244-245)

Granting that Beaufort had, in the end, much to do with the scale, Huler’s repetitive point throughout the book is that so did others. Initially ignoring a footnote in a biography of Beaufort that pointedly questioned whether Alexander Dalrymple (the first hydrographer to the admiralty) and John Smeaton (who developed an early wind scale) “weren’t part of this process” (p. 71), Huler takes the reader from his rediscovery of that footnote through his own research on Dalrymple, Smeaton, and others, to the hardly surprising conclusion that people had been trying to categorize and measure the wind in what we would call a scientific manner since the Reformation. Long before that, they had attempted to describe it: Huler quotes from Aristotle and Anaximander on the origin of the wind; reminds us that Homer numbered four winds; notes Margaret Lucas Cavendish’s determination (in her Grounds of Natural Philosophy, 1668) that “The strongest winds are made of the grossest Vapours” (p. 64); cites Raymond Chandler’s oft-quoted description of the Santa Ana winds; and intermittently discusses Daniel Defoe’s The Storm; all of which makes for a kind of conceptual sandstorm. Not that anyone who reads Defining the Wind’s introduction hasn’t been forewarned, for Huler states therein that on “the trail of Beaufort and his scale I would run into a parade of unexpected people” (p. 10)—most of whom, for better or worse and often fleetingly, he parades through this volume.

One of the most prominent characters in the book, however, is Huler himself. If an editorial decision compelled the author to insert himself into his work, editorial incompetence allowed Huler to do so with abject, sometimes boring, occasionally irritating, and mostly narcissistic consistency. Hurricane Fran, Huler begins, sent him back to the dictionary to look up Force 9 Beaufort (“Strong gale: 47-54 miles per hour. Slight structural damage…chimney pots and slates removed” [p. 4]) and made him realize that he “wanted to know Sir Francis Beaufort” (p. 10, italics mine). Getting to know Beaufort, however, means getting to know Huler. And so, here is Huler in Montevideo, to see what Beaufort had seen and sketched two centuries earlier, and then sketching it himself (Huler took art classes for this purpose, and Beaufort and Huler’s renditions appear on p. 28); here is Huler as an apprentice deckhand on the bark, Europa (“…almost a perfect sailing replica of a frigate, the standard three-masted [sic] ship of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The exact type of ship on which Francis Beaufort mostly sailed” [p. 47]); and here is Huler in conversation with biographers and historians, artists and scientists, taking courses in meteorology, researching at the British Met Office library, the admiralty hydrographic office, and the Huntington Library (among others), walking around with an anemometer, or building a wind scale, or flying a kite. And here and there is…Huler’s girlfriend, sometimes a distraction to him—“…[I]f she saw me lying on the couch reading it [Beaufort of the Admiralty] she would wave her arms magisterially [sic] and intone ‘Beaufort…of…the Admiralty,’ and I would find it hard to maintain my sense of purpose” (p. 13)—and sometimes an inspiration for examining the sordid:

I would be talking to friends or colleagues about Francis Beaufort and the Beaufort Scale, and they would get interested in…Beaufort’s surprising connections to Darwin and Herschel and the growth of modern science; Beaufort’s legacy as mapmaker and artist; Beaufort’s skill in administration and communication; the Beaufort Scale and how Beaufort did and did not write it; and so on. People would listen.

On the other hand, my girlfriend had heard this stuff more than once. So June learned to wait for the briefest pause and then interrupt, saying, “Yes, yes, yes, that’s all fine, but did you tell them that Beaufort slept with his sister?” (pp. 151-152, the italics are Huler’s)

And here, finally, is Huler, at book’s end, recognizing in certain literary passages (from, yes, Cold Mountain, as well as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Jack London’s story, “To Build a Fire”) and, of course, in the experiences of his own life what he calls “Beaufort moments” (pp. 241ff).

A Beaufort moment is any moment where instead of merely passing through my surroundings I notice them, notice them in a way that engenders understanding….

In the end it’s distinctions…that the Beaufort Scale is about—it’s about listening closely enough to make them. And I’m saying much more than that I would like to be able to make those nice distinctions. I think making those distinctions is a fundamentally better way to live. I think when I’m paying that much attention I’m living a better life. It kills me how often I fail to. And the Beaufort Scale puts me in mind to do it more. (pp. 242-243)

Well, the book is about wind.

The passage above illustrates one of the major lapses of Defining the Wind: its language. That the Beaufort Scale’s descriptions sent Huler into reveries (“…its prose continued to hypnotize: ‘small trees in leaf begin to sway,’ I read again and again…often enough that one day I realized—that’s iambic” [p. 76, the italics are Huler’s]) but did nothing to inspire him to at least try to emulate the elegance of their prose is jarring. To describe Captain John Smith as “that Pocahontas guy” (p. 10); to stretch a noun into such a graceless verb as “touristed” (p. 41); to torture a confused simile (being a boy sailor in the late eighteenth century, Huler claims, was like “being a steamboat captain to an American boy of the mid-1800s, an astronaut to one of the 1960s”[p. 57, italics mine]); and to constantly write as though speaking to a group of fourth-graders demeans Huler’s subject. It also makes suspect both his own professed love of language and his self-proclaimed respect for good editorial practice (Huler is actually a former copyeditor, and at one point quotes Strunk and White [p. 25]). Where Huler’s editor was in all of this remains a mystery. What is perfectly clear is the incongruity of doing justice to Huler’s muse (the Scale’s language) with the likes of the following—a short description of what surveying is, and was:

Beaufort and others like him were trying, for the first time in history, to find a way to say “You are here” and to have here mean not around here or pretty much here but right stinking here, and with the advances in instrumentation they were able to do it, and when you realize that, you can begin to understand Beaufort’s madness for taking his bearings. He was a guy who wanted to know where he was and where he was going, and he lived in a world where for the first time if you had a small chest full of cool equipment, some almanacs, and the kind of education you could get from a nutty but motivated father and some helpful sea captains, you could really know that. (p. 37, all italics are Huler’s)

Given Huler’s omnipresence, and his style, reading this book proves to be a test of will. And more’s the pity, for Defining the Wind gives a decent if summary account of science and technology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the era’s fundamental grasp of the fact that the world had not only become quantifiable—that the globe could finally be explored to its furthest reaches; its shores, continents, and seas surveyed and mapped with great accuracy; its flora and fauna categorized; its elements classified—but also that such knowledge belonged to all. It was an age that demanded that the world be grasped and graphed, and that believed that scientific—which is to say useful—information should be widely disseminated. Huler is best at answering certain questions—how longitudes came to be fixed, how the force of wind came to be determined, how the anemometer came into being—and at stressing how important scales and taxonomies were (and remain) in everyday life. He is also, pardon the expression, in his element when tracing the evolution of wind measurement (from Jurin’s 1723 scale to Beaufort’s 1806 scale), comparing nautical with land scales, and revealing the processes that led meteorological communities across continents to adopt the British meteorological office’s 1906 Beaufort Scale. Wind-scale descriptions are nothing if not alterable, as Huler points out in an ultimately, surprisingly, graceful way. That no one is “completely in charge” of the Scale’s descriptions, Huler finds to be “kind of lovely,” for it allows us to “check not only the force of the wind but the force of change,” and therefore makes of the measurement “a kind of progress scale, a living history, recording not just the force of the wind but the details we observe to judge it.” (p. 181)

It would have been wise to end Defining the Wind on that note. Instead, Huler cannot resist the temptation to discuss the Beaufort Scale as art, or at least as artistic interpretation. The scale, he informs us, has inspired illustrated children’s books, poetry, musical compositions, and songs: in English, French, Dutch, Frisian, and Esperanto, which Huler defends in Beaufort’s name (“Surely if there’s one person in history who would have embraced Esperanto, it would have been Francis Beaufort, the man who wanted everything communicated so everyone could understand it” [p. 223]). These artists, and those who listen to the BBC’s Shipping Forecast, and Beaufort’s biographers, and the “mysterious figure who decided that ‘moving cars veer’ at force 8,” and “the Dalrymple guy” from the past, as well as Huler in the present, among others, come to stand among the elect. “We’re all paying attention,” Huler writes. “We’re all keeping the Beaufort Scale alive.” (p. 235)

That’s certainly reassuring, but a bit of humility, not to mention presence of mind, would have been more helpful in this case. The wind, after all, is nothing if not variable, especially for those who live with it, obsess over it, as we do in Myloi. It is unharnessed at times unto destruction, while at other times lesser but seemingly without end, and at yet other times not much more than a welcome relief that brushes against the skin and turns the sea far below us into one, solid color. Most telling of all, when it disappears, it makes us long for a brisk breeze that might quicken everyone’s step. Indeed, when the vorias (north wind) doesn’t blow at all here, we begin to complain after a few days that we desperately need it to clean—na katharisei—the air, a curious notion in a mountain village of less than a hundred people with little vehicular traffic; when the wind blows in the slightest from the south, we go around warning each other, rather hysterically, arrôstia, arrôstia (sickness, sickness); and when the meltemi blows hard from the same direction, bringing with it Saharan dust that cakes everything, we talk ourselves into being sick. When the wind blows Force 8 or 9 from any direction, the ferries are canceled, and in winter such gales turn the world to spindrift when it snows and casts us into whiteout. Gusts in the night during any season can boom down ravines and wake up the dead here, which we nevertheless find soothing after all the stillness. Which is, finally, all to say that, in Myloi as everywhere else, what keeps the Beaufort Scale alive—Scott Huler and his contentions nothwithstanding—is the wind itself.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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